by Ray Linville
What makes our state so special for grilling ribs? Most of us can remember our first cookout when someone in the family, neighborhood, or church served home-cooked ribs. They were so tender that the meat literally fell off the bones. The homemade sauce was delicious, and often the recipe was a secret not to be shared.
Some of us can't wait for the next home-cooked ribs, yet we do have to wait because family reunions, church suppers, and neighborhood gatherings aren't held that frequently.
The sign on the side of the road says it all.
Travelers on N.C. 5 driving between Pinehurst and Aberdeen in Moore County don't have to experience a long wait. They look for smoke on the side of the road that tells them that home-cooked ribs are ready. All they have to do is stop and pick them up.
Even before travelers see the smoke, they usually spot the sign that simply says, "Ribs." These ribs have been cooking since morning by the master chefs of the roadside grill - Tony Washington and Leo Thomas, who have perfected the right combination of meat, sauce, temperature, and cooking time for a cause that satisfies more than hunger.
Leo Thomas and Tony Washington are the champions of roadside grilling.
Between Pinehurst and Aberdeen is the small unincorporated community of Jackson Hamlet, where both men attend church at St. Paul's Missionary Baptist Church. Washington and Thomas donate the grill's proceeds to their church's outreach missions that serve families in need.
Anyone not noticing the sign might wonder what is causing the smoke.
Serving the Lord has never created a tastier rib. The two have teamed in their grill ministry for several years that has been interrupted only by Washington's deployments to the Middle East with the Army. Because each one is indispensable to the other, the roadside grill is suspended when Washington is deployed.
Tony Washington (right) takes the order from a repeat
customer who looks for roadside smoke on Fridays.
When the smoke - and the ribs - returned to the roadside location on Fridays a few months ago, patrons know that Washington had returned home.
When asked if he missed his grilling partner during the deployment, Thomas said, "I missed him mostly in church. We are brothers in the ministry."
Leo Thomas keeps ribs cooking at the right temperature.
Washington, who earned a Bronze Star for his last 12-month deployment to Iraq where he served as a chaplain's assistant as U.S. combat operations were ending, also missed his partner in the grill ministry - and he missed his grill too.
"We missed it. Our customers missed it. We wanted to pick back up," he said after he returned to North Carolina.
The customers know that Washington and Thomas are only available for a couple of Fridays each month and look for smoke as the guarantee that the grilling ministers are serving ribs again.
"We usually grill twice a month, depending on the weather," Washington says.
The modesty of the highway tent and grill conceals the rich flavor and superb
taste of the ribs that few anticipate until they have stopped at least once.
Both Washington and Thomas think that their ribs are the best - and their customers agree. In fact, Washington boasts that he would never enter their ribs into any competitive event.
"It wouldn't be fair," he says. "We would win all the time."
An order taken home is always a crowd pleaser.
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Ray Linville is an associate professor of English and humanities at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, NC, and serves on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray's ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.